Fredericka Carolyn "Fredi" Washington (December 23, 1903 - June 28, 1994) was an accomplished dramatic film actress, most active in the 1920s- 1930s. Fredi was a self-proclaimed Black woman, who chose to be identified as such, and wished for others to do so as well. Because of her features, and because she didn't fit people's stereotypical views of what black is supposed to look like, she faced limited acting opportunities for being "too light or not black enough."
There were limited opportunities for mixed-race actors and actresses who showed so much European ancestry. She was often asked to "pass for white" for better opportunities, but she refused, because she said, "I'm honest and you don't have to be white to be good." She did not want to deny her black heritage to live a lie as white, as she had grown up in a black community. In the black newspapers of the period, Washington discussed wishing that she had darker skin. She faced discrimination from whites and, because of her appearance, sometimes resentment within the black community, which had complex feelings about obvious mixed-race people. Washington expressed her opinions about race and color prejudice; after she retired from acting, she became an activist and journalist. Washington was a founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America (NAG) in 1937, to create better professional opportunities for blacks in show business. She worked as Entertainment Editor of People's Voice, founded in 1942.
Washington earned particular notice for her portrayal of Peola, a young African-American woman who passed for white, in the 1934 Academy Award-nominated film Imitation of Life. She appeared with Paul Robeson in The Emperor Jones in 1933.
Fredi Washington was born in Savannah, Georgia, the oldest of five children, including one brother. Her family moved North to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the Great Migration as her parents sought better opportunities in the industrial city. Her siblings were Isabel, Rosebud, Gertrude and Floyd Washington.
As a young woman, Washington went to New York to pursue studies in performance, including dance and an acting career. Later Isabel followed her into acting.
Washington started her career as a dancer. She was in a few of the first black Broadway shows. Because of her beauty and talent, she easily moved up as a popular featured dancer. She toured internationally with a dance team.
She is best known for her acting career. Washington's first movie role was in Black and Tan Fantasy (1929) where she played a dying dancer. She had a small part in The Emperor Jones (1933) with Paul Robeson, based on the play by Eugene O'Neill.
In Imitation of Life, Washington played a young African-American woman who chose to pass as white to seek more opportunities in a society limited by legal racial discrimination in some states and social discrimination in others. The film was nominated for an Academy Award. In 2007, Time magazine named it among "The 25 Most Important Films on Race".
Washington, as she turned down a number of chances to pass for white as an actress, which might have led to greater acting opportunities. Obviously of African-European ancestry, she had a light complexion, and green eyes. Her beauty and appearance led directors to choose darker skinned actresses for the stereotypical "maid" roles offered to black actresses in those years. At the same time, Hollywood directors did not offer her romantic roles with leading white actors. When Washington played roles in race films intended for black audiences, she often wore heavy makeup to darken her skin. Washington had a role (4th billing) in Fox's One Mile from Heaven (1937).
Realizing she had few opportunities in Hollywood at that time, Washington quit movies and returned to New York to work in theater. She was dismayed not to have chances at deeper roles. Fredi was often dismayed that she didn't get to grow as an actress and tired of being asked to pass or to play "tragic mulatto" roles, another stereotype. She wanted to perform in more complicated, versatile roles.
Washington also worked as a theater writer. She was the Entertainment Editor for People's Voice, a newspaper for African Americans founded by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a Baptist minister and politician in New York City. It was published 1942-1948.
Her experiences in the film industry led her to become a civil rights activist. Together with Noble Sissle, W.C. Handy and Dick Campbell, Washington was a founding member with Alan Corelli of the Negro Actors Guild of America (NAG) in New York in 1937. She served as executive secretary, and worked for better opportunities for African-American actors. She also was active with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and worked to secure better hotel accommodations for black actors, who were often discriminated against, as well as less stereotyping and discrimination in roles.
In 1953, Washington was a film casting consultant for Carmen Jones, which starred Dorothy Dandridge, another pioneering African-American actress. She also consulted on casting for George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, an opera performed in revival in 1952 and filmed in 1959.
Washington dated Duke Ellington for some time but, when she saw he was not going to marry her, she started another relationship. She married Lawrence Brown, the trombonist in Duke Ellington's jazz orchestra, a relationship which ended in divorce.
Washington later married Anthony H. Bell, a dentist. Bell died in the 1980s. Washington died of a stroke, the last of several, on June 28, 1994 in Stamford, Connecticut at the age of 90.She was reported to have had children, but Washington protected her and their privacy.
One of Washington's sisters, Isabel Washington (May 23, 1909 - May 1, 2008), was also an actress. Isabel married Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the first African American elected to Congress from New York state. At her death, Washington was also survived by her sisters Rosebud Smith of Jamaica, Queens; and Gertrude Penna of Orlando, FL; and a brother, Floyd Washington of Hempstead, New York.
Throughout her life, Washington was often asked if she ever wanted to "pass" for white. This was a question almost unique to United States society after the American Civil War and Reconstruction. It classified people by hypodescent, that is, mixed-race people were classified as belonging to the race of lower social status, in this case, black, regardless of appearance and ancestry. Other multiracial countries tended to recognize a wider variety of classes. Washington answered conclusively, "no."
"I don't want to pass because I can't stand insincerities and shams. I am just as much Negro as any of the others identified with the race." Fay M. Jackson, The Pittsburgh Courier (1911-1950), Pittsburgh, Pa.: Apr 14, 1934.
"I have never tried to pass for white and never had any desire, I am proud of my race." In 'Imitation of Life', I was showing how a girl might feel under the circumstances but I am not showing how I felt." The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967). Chicago, Ill.: Jan 19, 1935
"I wish I had Nina Mae McKinney's complexion." The Pittsburgh Courier (1911-1950) Pittsburgh, Pa.: Mar 2, 1935.
"You see I'm a mighty proud gal and I can't for the life of me, find any valid reason why anyone should lie about their origin or anything else for that matter. Frankly, I do not ascribe to the stupid theory of white supremacy and to try to hide the fact that I am a Negro for economic or any other reasons, if I do I would be agreeing to be a Negro makes me inferior and that I have swallowed whole hog all of the propaganda dished out by our fascist-minded white citizens.
I am an American citizen and by God, we all have inalienable rights and whenever and wherever those rights are tampered with, there is nothing left to do but fight...and I fight. How many people do you think there are in this country who do not have mixed blood, there's very few if any, what makes us who we are are our culture and experience. No matter how white I look, on the inside I feel black. There are many whites who are mixed blood, but still go by white, why such a big deal if I go as Negro, because people can't believe that I am proud to be a Negro and not white. To prove I don't buy white superiority I chose to be a Negro." - EARL CONRAD, "Pass Or Not To Pass?", The Chicago Defender (1921-1967). Chicago, Ill.: Jun 16, 1945